Sunni tribes seek unity

Sunni tribal chiefs in Iraq call for a national front against al-Qaeda.

Sunni tribal leaders are pushing for a national tribal organisation to end violence [AFP]
Sunni tribal leaders are pushing for a national tribal organisation to end violence [AFP]

The councils are expected to adopt a model first applied in al-Anbar in which local tribes and former Baathists worked to restore order and security following the US attacks on Falluja in 2004.

Abu Omar al-Mahalawi, a senior figure in the Abu Mahal tribe, told Al Jazeera that the tribes of al-Anbar are trying to reach out to the southern Shia Arab counterparts.

He said: “Shia tribes are being attacked by al-Qaeda just like we are, so now is the time for all of us Shia and Sunni to unite; after all we all belong to one tribal community in Iraq.”

Rather than rely on Iraqi army and police units from other provinces or the use of US forces, the tribes urged local militia to create a new police force, patrol the streets, establish detention facilities and work on a provincial court system.

The council received assurances from the Iraqi government that it would apply an autonomous approach to maintaining security.

The al-Anbar councils also empowered the Sunni tribal militias to remove foreign fighters from the province, a key step, they believed, to maintaining security.

Ramadi success

Since its inception in mid-2006, the council has managed to restore
order in several Anbar cities including Hiyt, where a security presence was re-established for the first time in April 2007, after the police headquarters was blown up in 2005.

“We discovered their (al-Qaeda’s) real agenda… they were working to destroy Iraq. They did not come to liberate Iraq. The tribes know this now. They are our most dangerous enemy”

Abu Mazen al-Obaidi, a former army officer and a Sunni tribal leader

The council has also been successful in reducing the level of violence in Ramadi, al-Anbar’s capital, after it had been transformed into a battleground between al-Qaeda, various insurgent groups, and US forces.

Abu Mazen al-Obaidi, a former officer in the Iraqi security establishment and a member of the al-Obaidi tribe in Ramadi, said US forces had been trying for years to dislodge al-Qaeda’s influence from the area but never succeeded.

Only when local tribes turned on al-Qaeda and convinced local resistance groups to break ties with al-Qaeda fighters did that influence begin to wane.

“We discovered their [al-Qaeda’s] real agenda … they were working to destroy Iraq. They did not come to liberate Iraq. The tribes know this now. They are our most dangerous enemy,” he said.

Iraqi fighters in Ramadi began to pursue and kill some of al-Qaeda’s commanders; some were caught, put on trial and executed.

Al-Qaeda responded by attacking police recruitment centres, police officials, and local tribal elders.

He added: “They are killing everyone now. They came to fight the US occupation, they told us, but they have been unable to do that, so now they are killing all Iraqis – Shia, Sunni, and Kurd. And all Iraqis will fight back. These are the last days of al-Qaeda.”

The US military has lauded the al-Anbar Salvation Council’s efforts as one of the few successes to emerge over the past four years.

Combating al-Qaeda

Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who headed the Al-Anbar Salvation Council and
spearheaded efforts to rout out al-Qaeda forces from western Iraq, was killed on September 14 by a roadside bomb near his farm.

US expressed concern that Abu Risha’s death
could derail their efforts [AFP]

US forces, who had been helping the al-Anbar Council against al-Qaeda, expressed concern that Abu Risha’s death could derail their efforts.

But al-Mahalawi dismissed these concerns saying that Abu Risha’s death has been a wake up call for Iraqi tribes.

“We now understand two things; firstly, al-Qaeda has been implementing the same strategy as the Iranian militias, which is to target Sunnis, destroy Arab unity and create chaos in Iraq,” he said.

“The second is that all the tribes, from al-Anbar to Salahadin to Diyala, are seeking unity to combat al-Qaeda. We are uniting now.”

Mosul Salvation Council

On September 15, tribal leaders from al-Anbar met their counterparts in the northern Nineveh province and a day later, Sheikh Fawaz al-Jarba, head of Mosul’s Shamar tribe, announced the formation of the Mosul Salvation Council.

The Mosul Salvation Council seeks to use the same approach – recruiting local tribesmen and militia for police and security – to pacify Mosul, Tal Afar and the surrounding villages where the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda offshoot, maintains a large presence.

Al-Jarba told Al Jazeera that several of the most prominent northern tribes had signed on to the Mosul Salvation Council, including the al-Jubor, al-Ttay, al-Nuaim, Albu Badran, Kirkeah, Shamar, as well as a number of Yazidi tribes.

“We are determined to clean Mosul from al-Qaeda’s evil net,” he said.

Al-Jarba did not comment on whether he had received US assurances of assistance.

US help?

Working with US forces is still considered a taboo subject among many of the Sunni tribes, particularly because many blame the invasion for their situation.

Working with US forces is considered a taboo
among many Sunni tribes [GALLO/GETTY]

Al-Mahlawi told Al Jazeera that some Anbari tribes regard the US military with suspicion.

He said: “They have to be careful … they believe Americans have double faces.

“In the beginning they sided with the victorious side, the Shia militias, and now they are siding with the Sunni tribes. This makes it appear that the US presence here is not for Iraq’s national interests but for theirs only.”

Abu Mohannad, an al-Anbar provincial official, said the lack of Sunni political unity in Baghdad could also prove to be an obstacle to tribal aims against fight al-Qaeda.

“There is no agreement between Sunni politicians in the Iraqi government and Parliament,” he said.

“Some of them selected to side with the Iraqi resistance while others sided with the government.”

Abu Mohannad believes seeking US help may be one of the few remaining options, but offered a warning to the US military.

“If the US refuses to respond to Sunni requests for help, we may resort to asking the help of neighbouring Arab Sunni countries.”

In previous years, Sunni tribes have lobbied for support in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In December, the Saudi monarchy indicated it was willing to arm and finance Sunni factions if the US failed to do or would prematurely withdraw its forces from Iraq.


But not all Sunni tribal leaders agree with the objectives of the salvation councils.

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Jamal Hadahda, a tribal official in al-Anbar, had previously voiced opposition to Abu Risha’s role in the al-Anbar Salvation Council.

“I think the old sheikhs of the Dulaim tribes haven’t agreed that someone as young as Abdul Sattar [Abu Risha] lead them,” he said.

He predicted dissent among Sunni tribes if they did not all agree on Abu Risha’s successor and a new platform for the council’s aims.

“The new leader of the council needs to focus on the unity of the tribes and not to work with the Americans on reconstruction projects and how to increase his political leverage through them.”

Mustafa al-Heeti, a member of a Hiyt tribe, said the US was pushing too quickly to merge the tribes into a national front to combat al-Qaeda and that this could backfire.

He said the first step is to rehabilitate Iraqi tribesmen who were working with al-Qaeda before taking up arms against them.

Al-Heeti said: “The US is trying to create a new melting pot of Iraqi society in order to build a new post-war community, in much the same way they did in Japan and Germany in 1945.

“We haven’t found stability in Iraq in the past four years of these efforts … I am afraid the immediate future won’t be much different.”


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